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Tongue-tied

First-grade teacher Teresa Nuez spends most of the day in Spanish.
Deron Neblett

H e's a nine-year-old third-grader who is segregated in a special bilingual classroom because he doesn't speak, understand, read or write English very well. Instead, he spends his days in the Spanish he understands and hears at home. Carlos (not his real name, but let's call him that) writes stories, learns social studies, reads and calculates all in Spanish, all under the eyes of a very dedicated young teacher. The walls are covered with bright, cheery pictures and instructions, nearly all in Spanish. Just because Carlos doesn't know English doesn't mean he has to fall behind in his classes in school. He can continue to learn, while his English catches up, and someday he can make the transition to regular classes.

To make that "someday" happen, Carlos has to do well enough on tests to show a basic ability to read English. The keys to getting him there may lie within his English as a Second Language textbook. But that book sits on a shelf until it is brought out for 45 minutes late in each class day.

His mother, who has grown increasingly concerned about her son's non-progress in English, went to the principal of Wilson Elementary when Carlos was in second grade and asked that he be put in regular classes. Sink or swim. Let's try it. She was told he hadn't scored well enough on his English tests to leave. But his mother didn't see how he was going to learn more English the way things were going. With the help of friends she marshaled her forces and went to a local Roman Catholic school. That school was more than willing to receive Carlos until it saw his test scores and how very little English he understood. It wouldn't be kind, wouldn't be fair, the parochial school officials told his mom, to put him in their classes. He wouldn't be able to keep up.

This summer some friends of the family may try to match the boy with a Berlitz teacher, an expensive, somewhat desperate attempt to change the course his life seems set upon. Otherwise, one friend (who declined to be named, saying that might identify the child) fears Carlos "is being educated to blow leaves and wash dishes."

Right now Carlos tests out at a pre-K level when it comes to English reading, according to the family friend. He is of average intelligence, she says, watches TV, loves Pokémon and can get along in English on a limited conversational level. But when she asks him to punch in certain numbers on the TV clicker, he doesn't often get those right.

And now for the punch line. Except it's not very funny. Carlos is no recent immigrant. He was born in the United States of America. He has attended school every year in HISD. His father was born in this country. Carlos is a 100 percent, certified, native-born U.S. citizen.

The question is, What have we created here?


Last July, Houston school trustees voted 62 to approve a new bilingual policy that stresses learning English "as rapidly as individually possible." Bilingual students (there are about 35,000 of them in HISD now, most in Spanish, some in Vietnamese) would be moved into English classes as soon as they could demonstrate proficiency in English reading. Co-authors of the policy were school board members Gabriel Vasquez and Jeff Shadwick, who at the same time encouraged all students to become "proficient in multiple languages."

Shadwick presented the new policy as a compromise between advocates of English immersion classes and those who think it best that students study in their native language for as many years as needed. In a guest column in the Houston Chronicle, he and Vasquez wrote that "Houston and the region are best served if students with limited English proficiency are fluent in English, educated beyond high school and prepared to be effective citizens."

The "no" votes were outraged. Trustee Olga Gallegos voted against the measure, saying, "Bilingual education is sacred to the Hispanic community in Houston, for that matter in Texas."

And despite the vote, the policy has not been implemented. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a grievance in August with the U.S. Department of Education's office of civil rights. MALDEF officials said they were afraid bilingual students would be moved into mainstream classes too early. They said there hadn't been enough communication, that Hispanics had not been brought into the process. The policy is undergoing revisions.

Present policy is that students are tested right after the start of the school year and are placed in bilingual classes if their scores are too low. There they remain until they can test their way out by taking the TAAS exam in English or scoring in the 40th percentile or better on the reading portion of the Stanford test. While in bilingual classes, they take the TAAS in Spanish and the Aprenda, the Spanish equivalent to the Stanford. Growth in English is measured with the Language Assessment Scales. As long as students are passing their Spanish-language classes, they are promoted; it does not matter that they are not catching up in English.

 

For each school and district, there are considerable built-in incentives to continuing the bilingual program. The state's allocation to the district is 10 percent more than that for a regular student. The bilingual teachers get a $3,000 stipend. Obviously these teachers are in short supply, but just as obviously, if you were a teacher capable of teaching in Spanish, wouldn't you prefer the bilingual class and the extra money it would bring?

HISD says its test scores show that students in bilingual classes "do much better than the children who need to be in the bilingual program, but opted for an all English program." The dropout rate is correspondingly lower as well, HISD says.

But not everyone agrees. When the issue came up before the board, former bilingual education teacher Terice Nevares-Richards spoke, labeling the bilingual program "a slow track" and one that "holds kids back." This was followed by her writing a guest editorial in the Chronicle, saying that rather than being for the children, the program benefited schools and teachers financially and was "a cultural thing" for community leaders.

"Hispanic students are not too stupid to learn English quickly. They can do it, like countless others have done and continue to do." She suggested that bilingual teachers should instead be trained as teachers of English as a second language, teaching class in English and speaking Spanish as needed with individual students.

She also posed a question to the political leaders who promote bilingual education, asking, "how many of you have put your sons and daughters in bilingual ed?"


Mercedes L. Wilson-Everett is the principal of Wilson, a school with 419 students and an enrollment that declines as high-priced lofts replace the older, smaller homes in this neighborhood on the western edge of Montrose. The classes are fairly evenly split between regular and bilingual: There's a total of 11 bilingual and 11 regular classes in the K-5 facility.

Wilson-Everett, a product of HISD schools, has lived and studied in Spain and South America (where she received her high school diploma in an exchange student program) and says she loves the Hispanic culture.

A quick tour through three bilingual classrooms shows small classes, attentive students and obviously hardworking and dedicated teachers. Perhaps the biggest surprise to someone assuming a bilingual class would go back and forth between Spanish and English all day is that the instruction is monolingual, solidly in Spanish. In fact the literature for the "One-Way Developmental Bilingual Program" specifically states that "instruction in the native language [should] never be combined or mixed with English or translated immediately into English. Languages must always be used separately. Instruction in English has its own time within the school day." In kindergarten, 30 minutes are set aside for English instruction daily. This increases to 45 minutes in first and second grade and is supposed to be an hour in third, but that doesn't seem to be always happening. Students are also exposed to English in PE, music, art and library, and by third grade in two 45-minute science labs each week.

First-grade teacher Teresa Nuñez came to the United States from Brazil and went to college in Indiana. She does her Spanish-language reading in the morning because it is so important, she says, for the children to learn how to read, and this time of day is when they're at their best. In second grade, Georgeanna Adams, who studied Spanish at the University of Houston, deftly moves her class through the day's lessons, all in Spanish.

In third grade, first-year teacher José Gutierrez has a Spanish-reading specialist working in the room with him. Gutierrez believes they have a good program. The children are learning English as well as keeping their native language. At a certain point, he says, the children are able to switch what they have learned over to English. "It's been proven that it works. They're learning basic skills to transfer over."

Elia Eccleston, the Wilson reading specialist, has taught for more than 20 years. She says it is recommended that the students stay in as long as necessary, although most are able to leave for regular classes after the third grade. But the numbers supplied by Wilson-Everett seem to show that this isn't the case. In kindergarten through third at Wilson, there are two bilingual classes in each grade level. There are still two bilingual classes in the fourth grade, and one in the fifth. Students who stay in the bilingual classes in the fourth and fifth grades are taught in Spanish in greatly reduced amounts -- to 50 percent in fourth and 30 percent in fifth, according to Wilson-Everett, but they are still there.

 

Wilson-Everett became upset when asked about the parent who says she tried to get her son out of bilingual classes. "By law, parents always have the right" to move their children out of bilingual classes, she says. She adds that she sends out a notice to that effect in English and Spanish at the start of the school year. Before a child is moved, though, Wilson-Everett talks to the parents about their proposed action. And if you're a poorly educated parent, used to being deferential to officials, how likely is it you're going to stand up to the school principal and continue to demand your child be moved?


According to HISD's own statistics, Carlos isn't that unusual. There are 35,000 students in bilingual classes and 58,000 with so-called Limited English Proficiency, some of them in ESL classes and some who've waived their way out of the program entirely. The district has an enrollment of more than 12,000 immigrants in this country for three years or less. So the overwhelming number of kids in bilingual classes are from here.

Any English-speaker who has studied a foreign language would regard this time spent each day learning English as being a bit on the light side. As for the comforting rationalization that these kids will somehow pick up English by being in American society, by hearing it on TV, well, if that would do it, why hasn't it? When the kids go to the cafeteria, they sit with their class. When kids go to recess, they play with other members of their class. Actual opportunities for holding stimulating chats with English-speaking students just don't sound too likely.

And putting the study of English at the end of a long school day, when teachers know they are the least likely to have children's attention, certainly underlines the lack of priority being placed on acquiring English.

Carlos took a wrong turn on the first day of school when he couldn't raise his hand and ask in English for permission to go to the bathroom. Shipped off to bilingual classes, he has never been able to get out. Whether it's the extra money the district is getting for him or the extra money the school is able to pay his bilingual teachers, or his basic inability to conquer English, the fact is the horizons of Carlos and others like him have been narrowed.

Spanish is a great and important language. We should never return to the days when speaking Spanish wasn't tolerated in U.S. schools. Considering the history of Texas and its geopolitical situation, Spanish should be the language that students opt for when they take a foreign language (and it would be much better if this were started earlier than middle school or high school).

But this is an English-speaking nation. English is the language of business and communication throughout the world. A Polish pope puts a letter in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and what language does he use? English. Children living in the United States need to learn the main language of this country so they can grow up to be adults who are able to compete effectively in a country whose commerce demands that we speak English.

Continue bilingual education, by all means. No child should have to sit lost in a class, unable to comprehend what is going on. Celebrate the good teachers and the good principals in the bilingual system (and root out the lousy ones who are only there because they speak another language, not because they can teach). Accept as a given that some kids are going to need the special help of being taught in a language other than English. But as Shadwick and Vasquez say, recognize that certain amendments need to be made to the bilingual program. Restore some balance toward the English-language portion of the curriculum, and get these kids into regular classes sooner.

Otherwise, many of these children will grow into adults shut off from certain options in life. And we're not helping anybody by doing that.

E-mail Margaret Downing at margaret.downing@houstonpress.com.


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